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Dancing at a Masked Ball in Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago
11/15/2010 -  & November 18*, 24, 30, December 10
Giuseppe Verdi: Un ballo in maschera
Sam Handley (Count Horn), Craig Irvin (Count Ribbing), Kathleen Kim (Oscar), Frank Lopardo (King Gustavus III), Mark Delavan (Count Anckarstrom), Rene Barbera (Judge), Stephanie Blythe (Mme. Arvidson), Paul La Rosa (Christian), James Kryshak (Amelia’s servant), Sondra Radvanovsky (Amelia)
Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Donald Nally (Chorus Master), Asher Fisch (Conductor)
Renata Scotto (Stage Direction), Christine Binder (Lighting). John Conklin (Costumes), Zak Brown (Sets)

(© Dan Rest/Courtesy of Lyric of Chicago)

A Masked Ball at the Lyric Opera of Chicago is cast so promisingly that the incoming audience buzzed impatiently, waiting to exhale. The Lyric has performed a hat trick, gathering Sondra Radvanovsky, Stephanie Blythe and Frank Lopardo in one production. Radvanovsky and Blythe are not only "A" list, but also close to the top of the top ten.

Lopardo may have been cast to anchor the production, but he gives much more than a sturdy take. Prior to the opening curtain, it was announced that he had stomach flu, but always a trooper he would continue. Listening to him makes us wonder what he is like when he is "well." His phrasing was perfection and his passion charming, if not as bright as it might be. The stretta "Ogni cura si doni al dileto" suggests his rich coloratura. The part is difficult, because Gustavus is a nice king, but so nice that he may appear wimpy. Lopardo is at his top when he does a comic turn disguised as a fisherman getting his fortune told.

Stephanie Blythe emerges from darkness as the fortuneteller and suddenly in "Re dell’ abisso, affrettati!" we have perfect diction, pure vowels couched in articulated consonants, tectonic body tones and a top that goes through the roof. The audience exhales. What is Blythe not able to do? She nails Elgar and James Legg songs, the Mahler Second, Frika, and Orfeo. She can do Verdi as well, and stand right there with the memorable fortunetellers, Marion Anderson who broke the color barrier at the Met in this role, and the unforgettable Florence Quivar. Blythe is a commanding performer who takes the stage with dramatic assurance. Like Lopardo she is a natural actress, her voice always inhabiting a role seamlessly.

The audience goes wild with beautiful Sondra Radvanovsky and, as Verdi noted, the audience is always right. Her voice has a lovely tonal timbre tinged with pathos. The vibrato is even from top to bottom, huge without the slightest sign of effort. Her gleaming top notes were thrilling in the love duet. While Dimitri Hvorostovsky wilted singing with Radvanovsky at Carnegie Hall last spring, Lopardo is right with her in this duet, one of Verdi’s most beautiful.

Amelia is not a role that offers much dramatic range, but Radvanovsky effortlessly makes her presence felt. During the heart-breaking cadenza in Amelia's aria "Morro, ma prima in grazia" tears flowed at the Lyric.

Mark Delavan as Count Anckarstrom had trouble starting. He is always reliable, generous in his phrasing and sings with vigor. For a singer known as an actor, he is curiously rigid and mechanistic. By the time he turns on the King, however, he warms to the role and expands. "Eri tu che macchiavi" begins with a brooding mezzo voce and arcs up to a lyricism beautifully shaped and expanded over a breathtaking dynamic range. When he sits on the middle C to end the phrase "brillava d’amor" and as he rises to the vocal climax, attacking the high F softly and then crescendoing, his striking baritone shines.

Kathleen Kim, the diminutive comic singer playing Oscar overcooks her performance. Even the uninitiated see that her over the top delivery mars her vocal talents. She has plugged in the wrong program for this role and does no favors to her lovely light vocal delivery.

Quickly it is clear that Renato Scotto, responsible for the stage direction, likes to have her singers step forward to stand and deliver when they have an aria. This may have made her comfortable as a performer, but as the style goes on and on in A Masked Ball, no matter how wonderful the singing, the evening gets boring. In this middle period Verdi, the characters are developed not only in the progress of the libretto but also in the music, phrase for phrase. Sung by this superior trio of singers, the story soars on Verdi notes, but the singing actors are distractingly stuck on the stage floor.

Scotto interprets the "love affair" between Gustavus and Amelia as quite tame and certainly unfulfilled. While the passion of Amelia’s role may peak when her son is to be taken from her a la Madama Butterfly, listening to both Gustavus and Amelia’s themes solo and intertwined, it is impossible to think that Verdi regarded their feelings for each other as tepid and distanced. Because Verdi carefully composes to both build character and reflect an emotional state of characters, this static production creates an odd disconnect between the stage direction and the music itself. While keeping the characters apart may be correct direction, it is not theatrically compelling.

Scotto noted that the original composition was based on a real Swedish King and his murder and she was delighted to return the production to its origins. Actually, A Masked Ball is as close as Sweden gets to a national opera.

The production comes from San Francisco and was very satisfying to an audience that doesn’t particularly care for trench coats and timeless settings like the new Macbeth. Here we are treated to an imposing throne room, with classic columns and a gigantic white marble frieze. The sumptuous masked ball scintillates with harlequins dancing, jugglers and 18th century costumes. John Conklin designed the costumes and Zak Brown is responsible for the lush sets.

Asher Fisch’s direction of the orchestra was magnificent across the board. Fisch is clearly steeped in Verdi and understands the nuances from lilting in the lighter phrases to powerful, richly evocative passages of dramatic intensity.

The Lyric’s fall season continues until January 21 with Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Mikado, in which Blythe will debut as Katisha.

Susan Hall



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